Monday, October 24, 2011

'Nuff with the Puff

By Jax Hubbard

It's no secret that the majority of the students in the Culinary Arts program are not particularly apt in the pastry department. It is not to say that we cooks are incompetent or incapable of rolling dough or making caramel. We'd just rather break bread than bake it. Part of the culinary curriculum, however, incorporates pastry lessons in an effort to expose us to as many aspects of the kitchen as possible; whether we like it or not, we have to do it, and do it well.

For six lessons in Level Two, we endured numerous demands from the curriculum, from crèmes and custards to crepes and fritters. I experienced firsthand the heavy feeling of defeat as I watched crème anglaise go from a creamy, slightly thickened (known as nappant in the kitchen) conglomerate to watery scrambled eggs. I witnessed caramel’s rapid transformation from dark golden brown perfection to burnt, bitter molasses. I grumbled over doughy worktops that had to be scrubbed down several times throughout the evening. I sniffled as particles of flour puffed from my hands, floated into my nostrils. I felt the devastation upon discovering that my puff pastry fruit tart hadn’t survived the commute home.

Contrary to how it seems, it wasn't all bad—and we even picked up on a few things along the way. We whirled up frozen fruit soufflé that tasted a lot like a Push Pop. Buttercream from a generic bakery tastes like Styrofoam when compared to fresh frosting. Chantilly sounds fancy, but it’s just a decorative word for whipped cream. There are three types of meringues, and the Italian one is the best (right, Marc?). Génoise is a base cake that is flavored in a variety of ways to make little génoise offspring. Crème anglaise tastes almost as good as the ice cream it makes.

With our pastry tolerance maxed out and our chops just barely developed, we underwent the Level Two practical. In addition to manhandling meat, we delivered on the pastry requirements, granting us the ability to move on to Level Three. (It’s like leaving Neverland—you're excited to grow up, but you'll miss all the fun you had as a kid.)

The most important thing I learned during the two weeks of pastry is that, though I am able to prepare simple desserts and not completely screw them up, and I can impress others with my persistence in whipping cream by hand, I'd much rather have someone do it for me. I turned dough to make puff pastry, but I've had enough with the stuff. For now.

Jax Hubbard is a registered dietitian, freelance food writer, and student at The French Culinary Institute. She is also the founder of Hubbard aspires to eat well, cook without inhibition and live to write about it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cake Techniques and Design Inaugural Graduation

We're very proud to announce that our first class of students graduated from the inaugural Cake Techniques and Design program earlier this month at our New York City campus. In class, students learned all aspects of cake making, from the fundamentals of construction to hands-on practice of both classical and contemporary decorating techniques.

After completing many cakes throughout the program, our students' final challenge was to design and create an elaborate enchanted themed cake. Here are some photos from behind-the-scenes in the kitchen, the final cakes on display, and the graduating students, with pastry chef-instructors and Ron Ben-Israel, preeminent cake designer, looking on.

We'd like to congratulate our students and wish them the best as they embark on their new careers!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Jacques Pépin's Ultimate Test of a Chef

By Jen Benyamine

Chef Jacques Pépin is one of the world's most renowned chefs and also dean of special programs here at The International Culinary Center. Dean Pépin recently visited the amphitheater to demonstrate the basic techniques he feels every professional chef—and home cook—should know in order to strengthen their culinary skills.
Whether he was carving and shaping a flower from a brick of butter or trimming and dicing a leek with exact precision, it was like watching a magician at work. His magic was on full display when he fixed a horribly broken handmade mayonnaise with a bit of vinegar slowly drizzled into the base (a trick I know will come in handy throughout my culinary education)!
Dean Pépin then told us that when he really wants to judge a chef's techniques, he asks them to prepare an omelet. Lucky for us, he gave a first-hand step-by-step guide to creating the perfect French omelet.
  1. Use a wide pan with sloping sides, preferably non-stick.
  2. Whisk the eggs well with a fork and really break them up so there are no long pieces of egg white.
  3. Heat the pan very well and place butter in it. It is ready once the butter starts bubbling.
  4. Pour the beaten eggs into the hot pan and vigorously shake the pan while using the fork to stir the center of the eggs to break up the curds and make them as small as possible. You want a lot of movement at this point.
  5. Once the eggs are cooked to the doneness you prefer (traditionally a bit wet in the center), angle the pan so that most of the mixture is at the bottom, with a thin layer on top. Run your fork around the edges to loosen the eggs from the pan. Then fold the thin, cooked eggs down into a half-moon shape.
  6. Run your fork under the thickest part of the eggs to loosen them from the pan and hit the pan at the base where the handle meets with the back of your hand to scoot it up, and begin to bring that part up and out of the pan. Push that part down over the center of the omelet to seal it.
  7. Bang the pan on your workspace a bit to move the omelet to the center of the pan and with an inverted hand, flip the omelet onto your plate. There should be no color (it should be white or pale yellow) and just pointed at the ends. It should have a very creamy and soft interior.
His demo was a peek into what can be seen in Jacques Pépin's Complete Techniques, his latest book that encompasses all that he has learned in the past 40 years. Included is a DVD with over three hours worth of Chef Pépin's techniques. As he said during the demo, he felt it was important to have a visual of some techniques because even the best written directions can be difficult to follow sometimes. We can attest to that, especially after having a front row seat to his craft in action.

Jen Benyamine is a student in the Classic Culinary Arts program.

Monday, October 03, 2011


By Ron Yan

I survived my first week at culinary school.

It’s been absolutely amazing. Tiring, but I look forward to each 5-hour class. I am very confident in my cooking skills, so I have no problem with the pace of the class and the new information. But I have to stand up for the entirety, including the break, so buying good quality black non-slip shoes was very important. I have class every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday night... which also means, I can’t go out on Saturday nights because by the time I finish class, it’s 10:45pm. Then it takes me 15 minutes to pack my stuff and change from my uniform back into my street clothes, and I don’t get back to my apartment on Roosevelt Island until 11:45pm to midnight, depending on how long I have to wait for the F train.

The most important thing that I’ve learned this past week was taillage, methods of cutting. Learning to cut vegetables the French way is challenging. In the French system, there are certain sizes and shapes reserved for each kind of vegetable (carrots, turnips, potatoes). For instance, carrots are commonly julienned. Julienne carrots are very thin sticks with a measurement of 1-2 mm (width) by 5-7 cm (length). Jardinière are similar to julienne except that they are thicker and shorter, 5mm by 4-5 cm. There are others that we practiced: macédoine, brunoise, émincer, ciseler, paysanne, and chiffonade. When I first read about it in my textbook, I didn’t think that much and the importance of it.

There are three purposes for taillage:

1. To ensure that food will cook evenly at the same rate

2. To enhance the visual appeal of dishes

3. To allow more than one person to prepare items for a specific recipe

I could see the aesthetic part of the cutting but I didn’t really think about reason number 3. Duh. It’s not just me anymore in the kitchen when I start working in a restaurant.

Anyway, before my education at The FCI, whenever I made bisques and chowders at home, I did chop my squash and potatoes into small dice but their sizes weren’t completely uniform. When I made New England Clam Chowder (view the recipe) the first time, cooking took kind of a long time. And last night, it only took 30 minutes. I was impressed.

Ron has lived in Beijing, Toronto, Hong Kong, and the state of Texas (Plano and Austin) before coming to The International Culinary Center to study in The French Culinary Institute's Classic Culinary Arts program. He is inspired by the cuisines from different cultures and loves to travel. When Ron is not Yelping or passionately learning new skills and techniques in class, he is updating his food blog, Cooking with Strawberry Tsunami.